Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

A History of the U.S. Navy Dental Corps

The Dental Corps has a rich history, one of care, innovation, and commitment – in the case of two naval dentists a commitment literally “above and beyond the call of duty.” It includes members who gave their last full measure on the battlefield, were in the forefront of innovative dental treatment, and participated in civic action efforts that changed lives for the better. And it’s a history that even includes moments of humor and glamour.

“Few remedial measures of recent years have given more satisfaction to enlisted men than the establishment of this Corps.”

– Rear Adm. William C. Braisted, U.S. Navy Surgeon General, 1914-1920

The Dental Corps was authorized by an Act of Congress on Aug. 22, 1912. But the distinction of who was the Navy’s first dentist is not as clear-cut. For example, when the Dental Corps celebrated its centennial in 2012, a discussion arose as to who should rightfully be regarded as the Navy’s first dentist. Officially, the first naval dentist is Dr. Emory Bryant, “the Father of Naval Dentistry,” who received his appointment on Oct. 23, 1912. But naval medical historians Jan K. Herman, André B. Sobocinski, and Michael Rhode have good-naturedly put forth some other candidates for de facto consideration as the Navy’s first dentist.

Dr. Thomas Oliver Walton

Dr. Thomas Oliver Walton served as acting assistant (dental) surgeon at the U.S. Naval Academy from 1873 to 1979. U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery photo

If one expands the criteria to include civilians appointed as “Acting Assistant Surgeons,” the “acting” referring to temporary appointments of civilians and volunteers, then the first naval dentist would be Dr. Thomas Oliver Walton, appointed acting assistant [dental] surgeon to the U.S. Naval Academy from 1873 to 1879. After being honorably discharged, he continued as a civilian to perform dentistry for the Naval Academy.

At the start of the 20th century, the Navy had trained dentists in its enlisted ranks. Edward Ewel Harris, a 1904 graduate of the Chicago College of Dental Surgery, enlisted that same year in the Navy Hospital Corps as a hospital steward. Under that rating he worked exclusively as a dentist. In 1914 Harris passed his examination and officially became acting assistant [dental] surgeon.

Two factors that support a claim of his being first are that Bryant was a reservist, and by virtue of Harvey’s name being first on the alphabetically arranged Regular Navy list, Harvey ranks first. Such parsings and semantics make for good-natured blogging fodder, but until someone with more authority than a social media chat room monitor weighs in, Bryant’s the one.

Another hospital steward dentist was Dr. Harry Edward Harvey. Harvey enlisted in 1905, and in 1912 earned his DDS from Georgetown Dental College. On Dec. 18, 1912, he passed the Navy’s dental examination, officially making him a dentist. Two factors that support a claim of his being first are that Bryant was a reservist, and by virtue of Harvey’s name being first on the alphabetically arranged Regular Navy list, Harvey ranks first. Such parsings and semantics make for good-natured blogging fodder, but until someone with more authority than a social media chat room monitor weighs in, Bryant’s the one.

Under Bryant’s stewardship, the Dental Corps rapidly met its initial goals. Within two years of its authorization, Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Charles F. Stokes was able to report to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels that the Navy had enough dentists to allow it to accept recruits otherwise rejected for having defective teeth.

Lt. (j.g.) Weedon E. Osborne

Lt. (j.g.) Weedon E. Osborne is one of only two U.S. Navy dentists to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Osborne received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in France, June 6, 1918, during the Battle of Belleau Wood. U.S. Navy photo

Six years after the Dental Corps was founded, the United States entered World War I. During that conflict, the Dental Corps expanded from 35 to more than 500 personnel, including 124 dentists commissioned in the Regular Navy. Dental Corps personnel were deployed on ships and attached to Marine Corps units, where they also served on the front lines with distinction. Two such dental officers attached to Marines stationed on the bloody battlefields of France were Lt. (j.g.) Weedon E. Osborne and Lt. Cmdr. Alexander G. Lyle.

Osborne, a Chicago native, graduated from Northwestern University Dental School in 1915. Two years later he received his naval dental surgeon appointment. Osborne reported to the 6th Marine Regiment on March 30, 1918. Two months later, he was on the front lines as an assistant surgeon for the 96th Company, commanded by Capt. Donald F. Duncan.

On June 6, 1918, the Battle of Belleau Wood was launched. Late that afternoon, Duncan received orders to attack the village of Bouresches. After a preparatory artillery barrage, the company advanced. The artillery barrage proved ineffectual and the Marines were lashed by mortar and heavy machine-gun fire. Osborne ignored it, repeatedly rescuing Marines and tending to their wounds.

Duncan was leading a charge when he was struck in the abdomen by machine gun fire. Osborne and two others carried the severely wounded captain to a nearby grove of trees. They had no sooner set Duncan down than an artillery shell exploded nearby, killing Osborne, Duncan, and one other Marine. For his action, Osborne was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He also received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. Osborne’s Medal of Honor citation reads in part: “In the hottest of the fighting when the Marines made their famous advance on Bouresches at the southern end of Belleau Wood, Lt. (j.g.) Osborne threw himself zealously into the work of rescuing the wounded. Extremely courageous in the performance of this perilous task, he was killed while carrying a wounded officer to a place of safety.”

In a footnote to Osborne’s story, at one point his Medal of Honor disappeared. It resurfaced in 2002 when an individual in South Carolina attempted to illegally sell the decoration. The FBI confiscated it, and Osborne’s Medal of Honor is now on display in the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the destroyer USS Osborne (DD 295), the headquarters of the 2nd Dental Company at Camp Lejeune is named for him. The Marine Corps Association also honors his memory with the Weedon E. Osborne Memorial Award, given annually to the junior dental officer attached to a Fleet Marine Force who exemplifies the qualities of high character, superior leadership, and devotion to duty.

In a footnote to Osborne’s story, at one point his Medal of Honor disappeared. It resurfaced in 2002 when an individual in South Carolina attempted to illegally sell the decoration. The FBI confiscated it, and Osborne’s Medal of Honor is now on display in the U.S. Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Lyle graduated with a dentistry degree from Baltimore College in 1912. He received his commission as a lieutenant (j.g.) in 1915. In April 1918, Lyle, now a lieutenant commander, was attached to the 5th Marine Regiment and stationed on the front lines near Verdun. On April 23, the area came under heavy enemy shellfire. Cpl. Thomas Regan was hit by shrapnel that severed his femoral artery. Disregarding the ongoing barrage, Lyle’s care of the Marine would earn him the Medal of Honor. His citation reads, in part, “Lt. Cmdr. Lyle rushed to the assistance of Cpl. Thomas Regan, who was seriously wounded, and administered such effective surgical aid while bombardment was still continuing, as to save the life of Cpl. Regan.” Lyle saw extensive action in the war, and his other decorations include the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit, and the Italian War Cross.

In the interwar years, Lyle was attached to the 4th Marines in China. From 1932 to 1936, he was chief of the dental service at Newport Naval Hospital in Rhode Island. In March 1943, he was selected rear admiral and appointed chief of the Dental Corps, the first Navy dentist to hold flag rank. He retired after 32 years of service in 1947, promoted to vice admiral on the retired list. He died in 1955 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Vice Adm. Lyle’s Medal of Honor is on display at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.

Prev Page 1 2 Next Page

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...